By James A. Kidney
Most of the mainstream media identifies the Republican Party as one in distress, torn between the capital C Conservatives embodied by Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, and the radical flamethrowers encouraged by Steve Bannon and the actions, if not always words, of Donald Trump.
But I wish I was a Republican. I wish I could be unabashedly in favor of the rich while proclaiming I am looking out for the little guy. I wish I could speak crassly of my fellow citizens on occasion and let inner prejudices out for a stroll. I wish I didn’t worry so much about those same citizens as their economic condition deteriorates or look with anger on the very wealthy for whom enough is never enough. I wish I could be blind to the damages inflicted on this great nation as a democracy is converted to a corporatocracy with the active support of my party. I wish I did not care.
But, more realistically, I envy the Republicans as the party of active debate and change, even if those debates and changes are headed entirely in the wrong direction. There is a seething anger and energy among Republicans, especially at the voter level. There are constant debates about the party’s direction, and even disagreements about whether the party leadership should be replaced and by whom. Although virtually all of the ideas Republicans debate are terrible, regardless of which side of the party debate you are on, and the debates are often shallow, at least there is an attempt to elevate the new, the novel and the tried but tired in deciding how to move forward with the party. Trump alone throws out challenges that cause chaotic debate before he embarrasses everyone by changing positions just as others start to take him seriously. The GOP is a cauldron of (bad) ideas.
I am envious not because of the content of the debate, but because there is vigorous concern about what the party stands for and how it can best win elections.
Sadly, I am still a Democrat. It is not much fun. Not only is my party out of power nearly everywhere at the federal and state levels, but there is little or no debate about why that is so and what can be done about it. Novelty causes anxiety among the party leaders. Candor is discouraged, except about one subject: Donald Trump. The party is united against Donald Trump. But it is “for” only bromides; big generalities that contain nothing about how goals are to be met.
Don’t believe me? Let’s go to the Democratic National Committee website and see what is proffered in the way of proposals. You have to get past a lot of fundraising appeals at the site to finally get to the bottom of the home page and see the links to “About”, “People” and “Issues.” The results are, at best, anodyne. At worst, they are naïve. Under “Our Party” the DNC states:
There are several core beliefs that tie our party together: Democrats believe that we’re greater together than we are on our own—that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules. Our party is focused on building an economy that lifts up all Americans, not just those at the top.
Democrats laid a new foundation for long-term economic growth that helps every American, not just those at the top. We are working to save jobs, create new jobs and new opportunities for small businesses, reinvest in our schools, close the educational achievement gap, make college more affordable, and expand opportunities for African Americans and for all Americans.
The Dems have a category of proposals — exhortations, really — for everyone. You can find a category of proposals for you if you are: black, disabled, Jewish, Asian or Pacific Islander, living abroad, are of any ethnic background, are a person of faith, Hispanic, LGBT, Native American, rural American, old or retired, own a small business, are in a union, are a veteran, have a family, are female, are young or are a student. It’s all pretty much the same: Level the playing field and allow access to success for all.
True, the Republican National Committee is nearly as bad at avoiding any solid proposals. Tellingly, the propaganda of both parties is sometimes nearly indistinguishable because it is so afraid of risk. The Republican web site does not distinguish by economic, racial or ethnic categories when identifying policy issues, but the bumper sticker for the issue of “poverty” is:
The best anti-poverty program is a strong family and a good job, so our focus should be on getting people out of poverty by lifting up all people and helping them find work.
Most Democrats could go along with that.
If you are expecting to find more enlightening or significant legislative proposals highlighted on the web pages of the Democratic congressional leaderships, you will be sorely disappointed. Even given that these pages have rules limiting overt policking, and are mostly for constituent information purposes, the “press releases” section and even the biographies of Senate and House Minority Leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi are bereft of ideas, legislative or otherwise, though Pelosi’s news site has more feisty opposition to Trump and GOP initiatives.
As a reader, watcher and tracker of Democrats, I see a moribund party, energized only by who and what it opposes. There is fear or extreme caution in entertaining genuinely new ideas, or even of ideas that smack of greater government assistance to the lives of Americans. This is despite the fact that the clearest historic value of the party has been to not shy away from expansion of federal solutions to meet national needs.
The clearest example of timidity is the introduction of legislation by Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Social Democrat from Vermont, calling for single-payer health care. Republicans ignored it, of course. But only a handful of Democrats joined to sponsor the bill and there were many voices calling the proposal too radical, despite the fact that a single payer system has been adopted by many western nations that still consider themselves both capitalist and a democracy. Others said it was too vague or that it “wouldn’t solve the problem altogether.” Of course it was vague. Congress is supposed to hold hearings and develop the details in a constructive way. Arguing health care would still have problems even with single payer is the scoundrel’s refuge. Very few proposals to address major problems are able to fix the problem completely. As even Trump noticed, “Health care is complicated.”
How many other proposals to address our growing inequality are offered by Democrats? Tax increases? Hilary Clinton proposed tax increases — starting somewhere north of a quarter million dollars. It was a start, but it reflected all the weaknesses of many Democratic proposals. It was half-baked and designed more to avoid scaring off voters than attracting new ones. Only seven percent of American households have incomes over $200,000. Although deficits do matter (not as much as Republicans pretend to worry), and the nation needs great infusions of cash for social programs, infrastructure and other needs, Clinton and the Democrats would increase taxes on only about 5 percent of the population.
What other major proposals are the Dems making? Not many. Any? Why is there no proposal for immigration? For infrastructure?
If there is a national Democratic strategy, it is the one identified above: Don’t do anything that might offend current Democrats even if it might attract new voters. Such timidity is a recipe for failure.
But absence of policy alternatives is not the greatest reason I am jealous of Republicans. It is that Republicans boast an array of odd and interesting personalities among the majority of dull accounting types. Some of them, like Jeb Hensarling and Louie Gohmert, both from Texas, are an unfortunate breed of clowns and troglodytes. But others, like Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, John McCain (favorites now of Dems), John Cornyn, Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, seem open to opposing their party leaders and capable of some independent thinking.
Democrats, meanwhile, pretty much march in step. The oft-noted “rebels” such as Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are careful not to criticize the party or its leadership even as they suggest a few (very few) options.
For good or ill, there is no personality on the Democratic side equal to Donald Trump. Where is someone on the Democratic side with the intellectual ability, gift for oratory, and capacity for empathy that Trump lacks, but also the showmanship and ability to reach the masses that Trump knows instinctively?
Michael Tomasky has a thoughtful piece in The New York Review of Books titled “The Resistance So Far.” I think he is too easy on the Dems, but he does recognize the importance of finding leadership that is willing to sound out in confident terms what the Democrats stand for:
Some Democrat needs to be able to speak frankly about the postwar liberal order and the world—to defend its triumphs without apology, to note in a spirit of open self-critique where it has failed, and to lay out the corrections that need to be made. Heading into 2020, voters will be sizing up Democrats in the following way: Okay, you people lost to that buffoon. What do you have to say for yourselves? Have you figured it out?
It’s the candidate who can articulate answers to those questions, not the candidate who most insistently backs single-payer or demands a minimum wage two dollars higher than the others do, who has the potential to be the Roosevelt or Kennedy of our time. I get no sense that any Democrat is even thinking like this. Donald Trump, in his shallow and malevolent way, does think like this. The Democrats had better start.
It is not enough to wait until Trump and Republicans fail. The Democrats must provide inspiring leadership that they lack right now. They must recruit candidates at all levels with interesting ideas and welcome those ideas for debate. New blood is essential. Raucous debate about the party, its policies and its future is not to be avoided, but to be celebrated. It need not be ruinous. It could be restorative.